In the wake of the surprise agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran last month, analyses have tended to focus on the two main regional hotspots of Yemen and Lebanon.
While both countries are suffering from crushing social, political and economic difficulties, no analyst has argued that the Yemeni crisis is the more severe or disputed the fact that Saudi-Iranian negotiations over the Yemeni conflict would receive more attention. But they have not been of one mind over whether Lebanon will present the more intractable problem.
Both crises involve interweaving ideological, political, and sectarian complexities, many of which extend to the regional and international planes. However, in the Lebanese case domestic political, economic, and electoral considerations appear to carry a larger weight.
Within days of the landmark Saudi-Iranian agreement, an International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission arrived in Lebanon in the framework of the 2023 Article IV consultation to assess the country’s economic situation and discuss policy priorities.
“Lebanon is at a particularly difficult juncture,” the mission observed in its concluding statement. “For over three years, it has been facing an unprecedented crisis, with severe economic dislocation, a dramatic depreciation of the Lebanese lira, and triple-digit inflation that have had a staggering impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.”
“Unemployment and emigration have increased sharply, and poverty is at historically high levels. The provision of basic services like electricity, public health, and public education have been severely disrupted, and essential social support programmes and public investment have collapsed. More broadly, capacity in public administration has been critically weakened. Banks are unable to extend credit to the economy and bank deposits are mostly inaccessible to customers.”
People in Lebanon are certainly aware of how dire their situation is, but now the Saudi-Iranian agreement has given them some cause for cautious hope. If it reaches fruition, they expect the Saudis to step in to solve the economic problems that have plagued the country for years, while the Iranians would help to resolve differences and broker agreements aimed at loosening the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah’s grip over the country.
However, while such relative optimism is the prevailing mood, some analysts have injected a sobering reminder of Lebanon’s history with regional agreements, which is rife with civil strife and bloodshed.
“Lebanese internal disputes mirror regional disputes in one way or another, but the history of Lebanon has never seen a regional agreement that was not bad for it and that did not lead to domestic or external conflict,” said Rabih Al-Habr, a Lebanese political analyst and a professor of statistics and electoral systems.
Al-Habr said that the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978 had been followed by the Israeli army’s “Operation Litani,” or the South Lebanon War, which had brought the Israeli occupation of parts of southern Lebanon. There had also been the “Hundred Days War,” the name given to the military clashes centring around the Ashrafieh district of Beirut between the Syrian army and the Lebanese Phalange (Kataeb) Party from July to October 1978.
No sooner had the three main Lebanese factions, the Shia-based Amal Movement, the Druze Progressive Socialist Party, and the Christian-based Lebanese Forces Party, signed a treaty to end the Lebanese Civil War in 1985 than an uprising erupted in the Christian camp. According to Al-Habr, this was because the treaty was more of a regional agreement than a domestic one.
The agreements that Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad struck with some Lebanese parties and that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein struck with others ended up precipitating more violent military confrontations that laid waste to large parts of Mount Lebanon and other areas in the country.
The Oslo Accords in 1994 ushered in a series of Israeli abduction and assassination operations in southern Lebanon. “In short, regional agreements have been disastrous for Lebanon,” Al-Habr said.
In contrast, Abdel-Rahman Al-Bizri, a Lebanese Sunni MP from Sidon, said the Saudi-Iranian agreement was a step forward that would hopefully have a positive effect on Lebanon.
“Any stability in Arab relations with their regional environment will have an impact on the critical situation in Lebanon. I anticipate that the agreement will translate positively for Lebanon. Let’s not forget that Saudi Arabia has always played a major role in reconstruction and securing economic and political stability and that Iran also has a great influence in Lebanon,” Al-Bizri said.
“But we still have the problem that the situation in Lebanon is critical and that fraternal regional arrangements alone will not be enough to remedy it. The Lebanese need to come up with a consensual formula for receiving support from our Arab brothers and our regional and international friends. Unfortunately, the political situation in Lebanon is still at an impasse, while the Lebanese have endured 30 years of government mismanagement, corruption, incompetence and waste.”
There is currently no bloc in the Lebanese parliament with the numbers required to break the deadlock over the election of a new executive. On one side there is the “Line of Resistance” bloc, and on the other there is the “Pro-Sovereignty” bloc, essentially the heirs to the 8 March and 14 March Alliances. In the middle there is a more recent addition of the Centrist bloc that consists of groups and individuals of diverse political and ideological backgrounds and persuasions, but it is still feeling its way in the maze of Lebanon’s sociopolitical complexities and contradictions.
None of the blocs is strong enough to gain a sufficient number of seats to hold sway in parliament. Even if two of them were to strike an agreement, the third would still be large enough to prevent decisions that require an absolute majority from taking place, as is the case with the election of the Lebanese president.
However, the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement could change the nature of parliamentary dynamics in Lebanon. If it can propel a large enough number of MPs towards the centre, then instead of opposing teams butting horns in order to put their own candidate in the president’s office, the centrist MPs could explore compromise solutions and a potential president acceptable to all.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly